The NWSL semifinals kick off on Sunday, as OL Reign travels to San Diego to take on the No. 1 Wave and Gotham FC goes up against the No. 2 Portland Thorns. The schedule leading up to the second round of the 2023 playoffs has been disjointed, with an international break causing the semifinals to be played two weeks after the quarterfinal matches.
The pause puts each club in a unique position. They’re going to have to manage the tired legs of their international stars while also re-engaging those who haven’t played a competitive match for up to three weeks.
Here’s where each team stands on the momentum scale, and here’s how they can find their way through a semifinal.
The Wave are in an interesting position going into their first playoff game of the 2023 postseason. They haven’t played a match together since Oct. 15, and they’ve had a number of players away for international duty over the past week. Despite finishing the season as the Shield winners, they haven’t beaten the Reign once in 2023, and the Seattle side has to feel good about a chance at an upset.
All signs, however, point to San Diego having enough positive energy to find their breakthrough against the Reign when it matters most. In their final regular season game, they clinched the team’s first-ever NWSL Shield with a comprehensive win over Racing Louisville. USWNT star Alex Morgan and rising star Jaedyn Shaw scored in that match and carried their momentum into the international break. Shaw, in particular, impressed at the international level, earning her first two caps and scoring her first goal for the U.S. senior team.
Other San Diego mainstays also seem sufficiently played-in despite the break. Kailen Sheridan appeared in one match for Canada against Brazil this week, while Naomi Girma held down the USWNT backline with her usual consistency. Forward Kyra Carusa also scored a huge goal to bolster Ireland in Nations League action. It speaks to San Diego’s roster construction that so many international standouts will be featured in their postseason run, and if manager Casey Stoney can manage tired legs, they have a real shot at playing in the championship game at home.
The Reign enter their semifinal on an unbeaten streak that has extended over a month. They had a big win in their regular season finale, 3-0 over Chicago, and gritted out a cagey match against Angel City in the quarterfinals. The pace of that match never fully opened up, meaning the Reign should have had ample time for recovery over the past two weeks.
But if San Diego is dealing with tired legs, the Reign might have a few players feeling even more fatigued with a short turnaround. Center back Alana Cook played two full 90-minute games with the USWNT, and defensive midfielder Emily Sonnett carried the most minutes at the No. 6 than any of her U.S. teammates. Jess Fishlock played two full matches with Wales, while Quinn and Jordan Huitema both got minutes for Canada. Their consistency in playing time will be an asset, but with little time off since the end of the regular season, manager Laura Harvey may have to get strategic with minutes for some of her key contributors.
The Reign’s capacity to weather the storm is twofold: They have players who didn’t travel for international duty, and their preferred style of play should suit them. Rose Lavelle was allowed to stay with her club over the break, continuing to build her fitness from an injury after making a return in the quarterfinal. Megan Rapinoe also stayed with the Reign after retiring from the USWNT in September. OL Reign plays a pragmatic, methodical tempo, as seen in their quarterfinal win. Their ability to hold onto the ball, retain their shape and keep the game in front of them — rather than turning it into a footrace — will work in their favor.
San Diego Wave over OL Reign, 1-0
The Thorns might be the most displeased with the postseason format this year, despite earning a quarterfinal bye with their second-straight second-place finish in the NWSL table. Their regular season ended on a sour note — a 5-1 dismantling at the hands of Angel City. The Thorns haven’t played since, and have sat on that defeat for three weeks as they prepare to host quarterfinalists Gotham FC.
Portland’s players called up for international duty had interesting experiences. Defensive midfielder Sam Coffey again struggled to get on the pitch for the USWNT continued, only seeing the field in the second half of the team’s second game. Forward Sophia Smith continued to build minutes in her return from an MCL sprain, playing 45 minutes on Sunday in her longest stretch since the injury. Midfielder Olivia Moultrie, appearing on her first senior team roster, did not register any minutes throughout the break.
The Thorns also have players who will be fighting fatigue. Crystal Dunn started both U.S. games at her less-preferred outside-back position, and key playmaker Hina Sugita will only have a few days to recover after Japan’s Olympic qualifying round in Uzbekistan. Outside back Natalia Kuikka will be dealing with similar travel fatigue after coming back from Finland’s matches in Croatia. While Becky Sauerbrunn returned to the USWNT fold at just the right time for Portland, who struggled defensively in their season finale, the Thorns might be balancing the worst of the “rest or rust” dichotomy.
Another thing that could concern Portland is Gotham might be the best set up of all semifinalists to carry their momentum into the semifinals. Gotham walked away from their regular season finale somewhat disappointed, settling for a draw against the eliminated Kansas City Current that pushed them into the final playoff spot and out of hosting a game.
But they bounced back with gusto, traveling to North Carolina and blanking the No. 3 seed Courage 2-0 behind goals from Delanie Sheehan and Yazmeen Ryan. The team’s ethos was on full display in the win, with their defending along the frontline wreaking havoc and forcing turnovers that spilled over into goal-scoring chances. Forward Lynn Williams carried that into one game for the U.S. this week, staying in rhythm without pushing into the red zone with too many minutes played. Forward Esther González also got a break during Spain’s final Nations League game this week.
Forward Midge Purce did not see the field for the U.S., and Bruninha was used sparingly as a substitute for Brazil in their friendlies against Canada. But the Gotham backline has remained mostly intact to train with their club. Gotham will have to embrace both an underdog and a road warrior mentality to stay on the West Coast as a finalist, but they have to feel like they have the right group to force an upset.
Gotham FC over Portland Thorns, 2-1
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.